MFA Boston Debuts Major Exhibition Exploring Basquiat and Fellow Post-Graffiti Artists' Contributions to Hip-Hop Culture

BOSTON (September 18, 2020)—Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation is the first major exhibition to chart Jean-Michel Basquiat’s relationship to early hip-hop culture. The exhibition uniquely positions the iconic artist among a community of peers who were also at the forefront of post-graffiti, a transformative moment in American art. Bringing 120 loans from around the world to Boston (including 25 by Basquiat), the exhibition features works by Basquiat’s friends and sometimes collaborators A-One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee and Toxic—all artists whose conceptual approach was rooted in early hip-hop’s sophisticated treatment of language. In the 1980s, this group of “writers,” as they were known to each other, began experimenting across painting, sculpture, music, fashion and film, transitioning their practice from New York City’s walls and subway trains into studios and galleries. Remixing and sampling a boundless array of sources, from pop culture and art history to facets of their Black, Latinx, Caribbean and immigrant experiences, this generation demanded and commanded the attention of the art world and fueled new directions in fine art, design and music for decades to come. Writing the Future explores how their contributions catalyzed the rise of hip-hop culture as a global phenomenon. In addition, an installation adjacent to the exhibition highlights the impact of these artists’ legacies on Boston. A video and series of wall labels offering personal responses to select works of art were created by a group of local individuals convened through the Table of Voices, the MFA’s recently launched platform for embedding community perspectives into exhibition planning processes.

“Basquiat was an artist of his time and, after his early death, an artist for all time. Writing the Future illuminates a less-explored aspect of his work and his mutually influential relationships with his peers,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “Basquiat and his friends knocked on the closed doors of the art world, the knock turned into a push and that push turned into a forceful toppling of long-established structures. We are proud to honor these artists and to celebrate hip-hop culture in all its forms, as a revolutionary movement that reaches and empowers young people in Boston and around the world.”

Originally scheduled to open in April 2020 and delayed by the MFA’s temporary closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Writing the Future will be on view at the MFA from October 18, 2020 to May 16, 2021 in the Museum’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery. Member Preview Days will take place from October 14–17. The exhibition has been redesigned to allow for more open spaces in the galleries, for the safety and comfort of visitors. Due to limited capacity, timed-entry exhibition tickets, which include general Museum admission, are required in advance for all visitors—members and nonmembers alike. Ticket reservations and an overview of the MFA’s new safety protocols are available on mfa.org/visit.

Sponsored by Bank of America. Additional support is provided by the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, the Darwin Cordoba Fund, the Amy and Jonathan Poorvu Fund for the Exhibition of Contemporary Art and Sculpture, and the Museum Council Special Exhibition Fund.

Writing the Future is curated by Liz Munsell, the MFA’s Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art, and Greg Tate, writer, musician and author of Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America and Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader.

Available in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, exhibition wall texts are freely accessible via the MFA’s new mobile app, and an illustrated catalogue is available in the MFA Signature Shop and online. The exhibition soundtrack, curated by Tate and featuring music that inspired and came out of New York’s post-graffiti era, is available on Spotify.

Additionally, the Museum has commissioned artists-in-residence Rob “Problak” Gibbs and Rob Stull to co-lead a multipart project inspired by Writing the Future, which includes a new outdoor mural in Roxbury painted by Gibbs and tribute drawings honoring Basquiat, Lady Pink, Rammellzee, Futura, Lee Quiñones and Problak drawn by Stull, on view adjacent to the exhibition.

Exhibition Overview

The entrance foyer to the exhibition introduces visitors to the foundational elements of hip-hop culture: graffiti, rapping/MCing, DJing and breakdancing. Large-scale video projections of graffiti art in public spaces set the stage for the post-graffiti works to come, accompanied by a selection of clips from Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s documentary Style Wars (1983), a pivotal film that helped to define hip-hop—initially dismissed by the mainstream as a passing fad when it emerged in the 1970s—as a multidisciplinary movement. Within the Gund Gallery, the exhibition is organized thematically, offering focused explorations of the artists' individual styles and practices.

The introductory gallery, Post-Graffiti, focuses on the transitional moment when Basquiat and his peers began to forge a place for themselves in the commercial art world, converging in downtown Manhattan’s gallery and club scene and bringing with them elements of hip-hop culture that had been thriving uptown and in the outer boroughs. The works on view showcase their experimentations in applying train and street writing styles to any and all surfaces they could find—from refrigerators, including the Fun Gallery’s iconic Fun Fridge (1982, Collection of Larry Warsh), to a leather jacket (1984, Collection of Hubert Kretzschmar), tagged by multiple artists in the exhibition. Early works on canvas, including Lee’s Fab 5 (1979, Collection of KAWS) and Basquiat’s Untitled (Thor) (1982, The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat), signal the artists’ shared influences and their transition to a more traditional medium while continuing to channel their graffiti and pop cultural roots.

The Portraiture section marks the first time that Basquiat’s portraits of his Black and Latinx friends and fellow artists have been shown together and given prominence in scholarship on his work. Even as he became a veritable darling of New York City’s elite art scene, Basquiat maintained friendships and collaborated artistically with many of the artists in this exhibition. Strikingly figurative within the context of his many cryptically messaged paintings, works such as Hollywood Africans (1983, Whitney Museum of American Art), Anthony Clarke (1985, Private Collection), ERO (1984, Private Collection) and a suite of marker-on-ceramic plate portraits (1983–94, Private Collection) reveal Basquiat as a vivid and charismatic documentarian of his generation. 

The Writers section emphasizes how each artist developed a unique vocabulary—drawing from comic books, cartoons and cityscapes to ancient, medieval, modern and pop art—to both communicate and obscure meaning. Charles I (1983, Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat) displays Basquiat’s deft ability to remix words from different languages and cultural contexts, while ERO’s monumental Beyond Fresh (1984, Collection of Marino Vismara) makes art historical references through its architectural scale and surface engravings. Toxic’s Ransom Note: CEE (1984, Brooklyn Museum) illustrates both the deep influence of his mentors Rammellzee and Basquiat and his singular compositional strategy. Collaborative pieces such as two large-scale Doric columns intervened with calligraphic texts by Haring and LA2 (1981, Collection of Keith Haring Foundation) demonstrate how the artists built on each other’s mark-making in a dance-like dialogue. Additionally, Basquiat’s notebooks (Collection Larry Warsh) and black book sketches by Basquiat, ERO, Lady Pink, Lee and others (Museum of City of New York) offer a glimpse into the artists’ more private ideation processes.

Two smaller-scaled, focused sections provide further context about the post-graffiti era. A timeline area features a graphic display of significant post-graffiti-related exhibitions, as well as ephemera such as exhibition postcards and posters notable for their iconic designs. A video screening area highlights select scenes from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style—starring Lee, Lady Pink, Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee, among others—and the band Blondie’s 1981 music video for “Rapture,” which featured lead singer Debbie Harry rapping against the backdrop of bubble-letter murals made by Lee and Fab 5 and an appearance by Basquiat as the DJ.

At the heart of the exhibition, the Music gallery is devoted to the collaborative intersections of visual artists with acclaimed musicians of the era as well as the artists’ engagements with language through music. Futura was a central figure in exploring the intersections of hip-hop and punk, two genres tethered in the early 1980s by their outsider status, mutual influences, overlapping audiences and DIY attitude. His large-scale painting Untitled (about 1982, Private Collection), painted while performing onstage during the first international hip-hop tour, is shown alongside a record album that features the artist rapping over music written and performed by the British punk band The Clash. Other highlights include Lee’s monumental portrait of Debbie Harry (1981, Private Collection), Haring’s Untitled (Boombox) (1984) and the Basquiat-designed album cover for “Beat Bop” (1983, The Andy Warhol Museum), the experimental hip-hop record that he produced with Rammellzee.

Rammellzee (styled RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ) was the first major critical theorist of hip-hop, and his artistic practice is explored in depth in the Futurisms section. Guided by Ikonoklast Panzerism, a lifelong philosophy articulated in his 1979 manifesto Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism, Rammellzee declared that the true purpose of graffiti’s wildstyle writing was to reclaim and protect language from abuses of power. He transformed letters into figurative missiles armed for battle, as is illustrated in works such as Evolution of the World (1979, Collection of Larry Gagosian), Hell, the Finance Field Wars (1979, Speerstra Collection) and You Will Read the Law (1982, John Axelrod Collection). Rammellzee’s writing was intentionally illegible to all but his Tag Master Killers crew—A-One, Kool Koor and Toxic—whose works are also shown in this gallery. Their futuristic works incorporated not only armed letters, but also intergalactic starship ports and beautiful renderings of nebulae—imagined alternatives to their dire surroundings at the height of New York City’s economic collapse.

Bodies focuses on the works of Basquiat and Lady Pink, who shared a fascination with the human body as a subject matter to explore issues of social and political import. Enamored with the book Gray’s Anatomy since a childhood accident and hospital stay, Basquiat continued to incorporate human bones, organs and skeletal structures into artworks he made as an adult, such as Anatomy (1982, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer), a series of 18 silkscreen prints. For Pink, the human form offered a vehicle to express the interruption of the natural life cycle of birth, death and rebirth due to warfare. The gallery highlights both her individual works, including the dreamy Untitled (Nude Lounging Woman) (1983, Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat), which Basquiat purchased for his personal collection, and two collaborations with Jenny Holzer, Tear Ducts Seem to Be a Grief Provision (1983–84, Ringier Collection, Switzerland) and When You Expect Fair Play You Create an Infectious Bubble of Madness around You (1983–84, Private Collection).

The final gallery, Ascension, highlights the artists’ respective approaches to questions of legacy and the afterlife via motifs associated with Afrofuturism (described by Tate as “Black Science Fiction”). This social, cultural and visual philosophy reclaims Black history by imagining alternative futures imbued with technology, sci-fi and African mythology. Otherworldly figures such as the bull-horned deity in Fab 5 Freddy’s Return of God to Africa (1984, Collection of Michael Deustch) and Futura’s Robot with Spray Can (1981, Museum of the City of New York) are poised as commanding conjurers who appear to occupy a shapeshifting realm between the living and dead, or between Earth and outer space. Displayed in the center of the gallery, Rammellzee’s GASH-O-LEAR (1989, The Rammellzee Estate) is an ornate, full-body suit of armor that he wore for performances during his lifetime. Basquiat’s Famous Moon King (1984, Private Collection), which foregrounds a trio of figures against a vast and cryptic array of data, serves as the coda to the exhibition.

From the Curators

“So-called ‘graffiti artists’ invented one of the most innovative and wide-reaching systems for exhibiting their work ever imagined in the history of art when they started spray painting on train and city walls. Their works were seen every day by thousands. Even as many of them shifted their practice onto canvas in the early 1980s and began to exhibit widely across Europe, they continued to be discriminated against rather than celebrated by museums in their home country. Writing the Future charts how these artists directly confronted the art establishment’s longstanding class and racial divisions. Basquiat and his peers infused contemporary art with an unprecedented diversity of voices. The coded and hybrid aesthetics borne of their work provide the foundation for the multicultural generations of artists who are remixing and remaking culture today.”

— Liz Munsell, Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art, MFA

“The artists in this exhibition boldly and audaciously left behind the world of city walls and subways and entered the white-cube Soho gallery scene with hella self-authorizing swagger. Their self-canonizing bravura was, of course, born of the 10 years they witnessed their generation painting 10-car masterpieces at great personal risk—from electrocution, holes in the train systems floors and police dogs. The post-graffiti flowering of their painterly and calligraphic imaginations on canvas and other surfaces, which the mainstream art world provided resources for and wider recognition of, obviously found its most spectacular avatar in Basquiat. But as the other artists’ works here attest, Basquiat was situated in a dynamic, communal, emergent hip-hop moment he shared with a crew of creative peers—young people, like him, in the prime of their lives, who were equally ignited by the pluripotential, world-changing possibilities of hip-hop’s futuristic and combative esthetics."

— Greg Tate, writer, musician and author

Exhibition Catalogue

The accompanying catalogue, edited by Munsell and Tate and produced by MFA Publications, features essays by the co-curators; Carlo McCormick, writer, curator and acclaimed critic of the era; Hua Hsu, Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Vassar College and a staff writer for The New Yorker; J. Faith Almiron, independent scholar and cultural critic; and Dakota DeVos, former Curatorial Research Fellow in Contemporary Art at the MFA.

Table of Voices

As a final contribution to the interpretative planning process, the Museum brought together a group of individuals with a wide range of expertise and backgrounds, including musicians, artists, educators, academics, financiers, social workers and creative professionals who were passionate about the artists, the era and the culture of hip-hop. Their contribution was a deep reflection of the many ways in which the exhibition will resonate for the people of Boston and in doing so, many offered their own labels for several of the works. Participants included Khamari Anderson, Chris Barnes, Kristen Catlin, Shaka Dendy, Shaumba Dibinga, Rahn Dorsey, Niki DuFauchard, Ed O.G., Lisa Finelli Fallon, Murray Forman, Kerry Foster, Rob “Problak” Gibbs, Daren Graves, Tim Hall, Leroy Irvin, Stacy Lewis, Oompa, Moe Pope, REKS (Corey Isiah Christie), DJ Riobamba, Greg Shell, Tyrone Smith, Justin Springer, Rob Stull, Billy Dean Thomas, Kris N. Tyler, Aysha Upchurch, C Wells and Dee Wells.

The roundtables for Writing the Future continued convenings of the Table of Voices, building on and formalizing interpretive strategies used for recent exhibition and gallery installations such as Women Take the Floor, Gender Bending Fashion and the Arts of Islamic Cultures Gallery, which engaged community members and partner organizations.

Table of Voices is supported by Joyce Linde and the Linde Family Foundation.

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